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Home › Perspectives › Cognitive › Visual Perception › Perceptual Set

by Saul McLeod published 2007

Simply Psychology App

Perceptual Set

Perceptual set theory stresses the idea of perception as an active

process involving selection, inference and interpretation.

The concept of perceptual set is important to the active process of

perception. Allport (1955) defined perceptual set as:

'A perceptual bias or predisposition or readiness to perceive

particular features of a stimulus.'
Perceptual set is a tendency to perceive or notice some aspects of the
available sensory data and ignore others. According to Vernon, 1955
perceptual set works in two ways:

(1) The perceiver has certain expectations and focuses attention on

particular aspects of the sensory data: This he calls a Selector'.

(2) The perceiver knows how to classify, understand and name

selected data and what inferences to draw from it. This she calls an

It has been found that a number of variables, or factors, influence

perceptual set, and set in turn influences perception. The factors

• Expectations

• Emotion

• Motivation

• Culture

Expectation and Perceptual Set

(a) Bruner & Minturn (1955) illustrated how expectation could
influence set by showing participants an ambiguous figure '13' set in
the context of letters or numbers e.g.

The physical stimulus '13' is the same in each case but is perceived
differently because of the influence of the context in which it appears.
We EXPECT to see a letter in the context of other letters of the
alphabet, whereas we EXPECT to see numbers in the context of other

(b) We may fail to notice printing/writing errors for the same reason.
For example:

1. 'The Cat Sat on the Map and Licked its Whiskers'.


(a) and (b) are examples of interaction between expectation and past

(c) A study by Bugelski and Alampay (1961) using the 'rat-man'

ambiguous figure also demonstrated the importance of expectation in
inducing set. Participants were shown either a series of animal
pictures or neutral pictures prior to exposure to the ambiguous
picture. They found participants were significantly more likely to
perceive the ambiguous picture as a rat if they had had prior exposure
to animal pictures.

Motivation / Emotion and

Perceptual Set
Allport (1955) has distinguished 6 types of motivational-emotional
influence on perception:

(i) bodily needs (e.g. physiological needs)

(ii) reward and punishment

(iii) emotional connotation

(iv) individual values

(v) personality

(vi) the value of objects.

(a) Sandford (1936) deprived participants of food for varying lengths

of time, up to 4 hours, and then showed them ambiguous pictures.
Participants were more likely to interpret the pictures as something to
do with food if they had been deprived of food for a longer period of

Similarly Gilchrist & Nesberg (1952), found participants who had

gone without food for the longest periods were more likely to rate
pictures of food as brighter. This effect did not occur with non-food

(b) A more recent study into the effect of emotion on perception was
carried out by Kunst- Wilson & Zajonc (1980). Participants were
repeatedly presented with geometric figures, but at levels of exposure
too brief to permit recognition.

Then, on each of a series of test trials, participants were presented a

pair of geometric forms, one of which had previously been presented
and one of which was brand new. For each pair, participants had to
answer two questions: (a) Which of the 2 had previously been
presented? ( A recognition test); and (b) Which of the two was most
attractive? (A feeling test).
The hypothesis for this study was based on a well-known finding that
the more we are exposed to a stimulus, the more familiar we become
with it and the more we like it. Results showed no discrimination on
the recognition test - they were completely unable to tell old forms
from new ones, but participants could discriminate on the feeling test,
as they consistently favored old forms over new ones. Thus
information that is unavailable for conscious recognition seems to be
available to an unconscious system that is linked to affect and

Culture and Perceptual Set

Elephant drawing split-view and top-view perspective. The split

elephant drawing was generally preferred by African children and

(a) Deregowski (1972) investigated whether pictures are seen and

understood in the same way in different cultures. His findings suggest
that perceiving perspective in drawings is in fact a specific cultural
skill, which is learned rather than automatic. He found people from
several cultures prefer drawings which don't show perspective, but
instead are split so as to show both sides of an object at the same

In one study he found a fairly consistent preference among African

children and adults for split-type drawings over perspective-drawings.
Split type drawings show all the important features of an object
which could not normally be seen at once from that perspective.
Perspective drawings give just one view of an object. Deregowski
argued that this split-style representation is universal and is found in
European children before they are taught differently.

(b) Hudson (1960) noted difficulties among South African Bantu

workers in interpreting depth cues in pictures. Such cues are
important because they convey information about the spatial
relationships among the objects in pictures. A person using depth
cues will extract a different meaning from a picture than a person not
using such cues.

Hudson tested pictorial depth perception by showing participants a

picture like the one below. A correct interpretation is that the hunter is
trying to spear the antelope, which is nearer to him than the elephant.
An incorrect interpretation is that the elephant is nearer and about to
be speared. The picture contains two depth cues: overlapping objects
and known size of objects. Questions were asked in the participants
native language such as:

What do you see?

Which is nearer, the antelope or the elephant?

What is the man doing?

The results indicted that both children and adults found it difficult to
perceive depth in the pictures.

The cross-cultural studies seem to indicate that history and culture

play an important part in how we perceive our environment.
Perceptual set is concerned with the active nature of perceptual
processes and clearly there may be a difference cross-culturally in the
kinds of factors that affect perceptual set and the nature of the effect.
Allport, F. H. (1955). Theories of perception and the concept of
structure. New York: Wiley.

Bruner, J. S. and Minturn, A.L. (1955). Perceptual identification and

perceptual organisation, Journal of General Psychology 53: 21-8.

Bugelski, B. R., & Alampay, D. A., (1961). The role of frequency in

developing perceptual sets. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 15,

Deregowski, J. B., Muldrow, E. S. & Muldrow, W. F. (1972). Pictorial

recognition in a remote Ethiopian population. Perception, 1, 417-425.

Gilchrist, J. C.; Nesberg, Lloyd S. (1952). Need and perceptual

change in need-related objects. Journal of Experimental Psychology,
Vol 44(6).

Hudson, W. (1960). Pictorial depth perception in sub-cultural groups

in Africa. Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 183-208.

Kunst- Wilson, W. R., & Zajonc, R. B. (1980). Affective

discrimination of stimuli that cannot be recognised. Science, Vol 207,
Sanford, R. N. (1936). The effect of abstinence from food upon
imaginal processes: a preliminary experiment. Journal of Psychology:
Interdisciplinary and Applied, 2, 129-136.

Vernon, M. D. (1955). The functions of schemata in perceiving.

Psychological Review, Vol 62(3).

Perception PDF Downloads

Perceptual Set

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Perceptual Set. Retrieved from .

Comments (3)
Sort by: Date Rating Last Activity

Ben F. (Linguist) · 166 weeks ago -10

"The results indicted that both children and adults found it difficult to perceive depth in the pictures."

Pictures are 2D; They didn't even use a 3/4 isometric perspective...

"The cross-cultural studies seem to indicate that history and culture play an important part in how we perceive our environment."

So, results from *exclusively* 2D tests are generalized and applied to the 3D world? O...K...

This type of behavior is one of many reasons why the rest of Cog. Sci. doesn't really like you guys!

Reply 1 reply · active 13 weeks ago Report

Hamish · 13 weeks ago 0


The 2D Image had two depth cues that should indicate to a person that this is a 2D representation of a 3D environment.
The picture is designed to create an illusion of depth.

Reply Report

Anthony · 40 weeks ago +3

First--Awesome website. Second--Irony: Reading about perceptual sets and realizing the author keeps mistakenly referring to a prominent
female British Psychologist as a "he".

The "Vernon" that published the above set information was indeed a female British Psychologist. :-)

Reply Report

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